Subtle but Real: the Influence of Gender in Academia
May 13th, 2011 | Blog, Gender Issues | 1 Comment
Soaking in a hot bath (backache from too many downward dogs in yoga), the day after my birthday (spent, romantically, with not one but two men: the AC repairman who came to fix the AC that wouldn’t come on after a sudden, awful 90 degree day in the Twin Cities; and “A.J.”, a darling dude at the Verizon Store who helped me with my new “smart phone” and who, after erasing everything on it and rebooting it, said, “Oh. All you needed was to have this mobile data icon turned on.” If you are over forty and need taking down a few pegs, I recommend an Android.)…
Anyway, soaking in a hot bath, I was disheartened to read in PAW (the Princeton Alumni magazine–my husband’s) about a report released in March regarding the underrepresentation of women among Princeton’s highest-profile undergraduate leadership positions and as recipients of the highest academic prizes. You can read the full report or a summary at http://www.princeton.edu/reports/2011/leadership/download/ or read a discussion of the issue at http://news.yahoo.com/s/dailybeast/20110321/ts_dailybeast/13002_whyprincetonswomentakesecondplaceoncampus_1
PAW followed up on this report with two personal essays in the May 11 issue, one by Christine Stansell ’71, a scholar of women’s history at the University of Chicago who spent many years on the Princeton Faculty; and the other by senior Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, ’11 (GO AMELIA!), who shares this year’s Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, Princeton’s highest undergraduate academic honor.
Having been away from academia (thank god) for a number of years now, I had not thought about how women might be faring there these days. So it was with a great sinking feeling that I read that women still have a lot of the same problems I had as an undergraduate, graduate student and faculty member. It’s not really overt sexual discrimination. We actually have come a long way on that one. But according to the report, among other things, women consistently undersell themselves and sometimes make self-deprecating remarks in situations where men might stress their own accomplishments; in many situations, men tend to speak up more quickly than women, to raise their hands and express their thoughts even before they are fully formulated; women, more than men, are pressured to behave in certain socially acceptable ways, or, as one woman in the report said, to be “pretty, sexy, thin, and friendly” and to make it look as if they weren’t really trying so hard, that achievements came naturally to them. On the plus side, women outpace men on campus in academic achievements, except at the very highest levels. But men are more likely to be awarded major Princeton prizes and to win prestigious postgraduate fellowships.
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote about how for four years she struggled to be the “right” kind of woman: “articulate but not overbearing, feminine but not girly, accommodating but not spineless, and above all, nice, not angry, and not strident.” She constantly compared herself to everyone around her and found herself lacking. She approached the president of Princeton her junior year, having written an op-ed piece noting that of the seven freshmen who had advanced their names for their class presidency, none were women. President Tilghman (a woman herself) had already noticed that, and had asked a few people to look into what was going on in terms of how undergraduate men and women construed their leadership roles. That led to a committee to explore the issues which eventually released the report documenting the subtle but real problems of gender disparity and providing solutions.
As Christine Stansell says, there will be skeptics regarding the report, since women have come so far as leaders (she cites various Princeton alums, such as two Supreme Court justices and the first female president among the Big Three Ivy universities, among others). “But to scores of others—faculty, alums, current undergraduates—the report will come as old news. Women have a problem at Princeton, and it never goes away. It’s diffuse, elusive, and tenacious…the old order insinuates itself: men up front, women behind the scenes. Men at the top, women somewhere else. Men operating for public recognition, women for personal satisfaction.” Still, there’s no denying how much progress has been made since the women’s movement shone a light on and lit a bomb under sexual discrimination. Maybe it’s that the most blatant forms have been banished (for example, prior to 1969, Princeton didn’t even admit women as students), but the more nuanced, veiled, hard to articulate problems still exist and still count.
Pondering all this, I was plunged back into my own experience as a young woman student and writer, and then later, as an adjunct faculty member. Gender—being female—was always such a huge part of it all. I don’t think gender itself was an issue for my male peers. Admittedly they had their own problems—often of ego, insecurity, ambition, competition, success or lack of it…but they had been raised in a society that gave them a sense of unconscious entitlement because of their gender. Being a woman trying to succeed was different and I think more difficult. I am truly sorry to think that for women students apparently things haven’t changed as much as I had assumed.
All of this soaking and sinking brought to mind an experience I had as an adjunct faculty member. It was not overt sexual discrimination, but it did contain, for me, gender-related issues, such as who gets to judge who is the “better” writer, what values do they bring to such decisions, and where do those values come from. It was mixed up with the “adjunct problem,” as one professor put it, the tendency to exploit the local, available, cheap talent and to inflate the exotic unknown outsider, which pissed me off also. I felt that what happened had a lot to do with my being female, and that I was being screwed because of that. I felt that as a woman, teacher and writer, I had to say, “Excuse me, we have a problem here.” Luckily I was (am) married to a terrific lawyer (in-house counsel) who is my biggest fan and support, and he guided me through this little, nerve-wracking adventure with a sure, steady, experienced hand.
I wrote a story about it all back then (as I am wont to do), hopefully now a period piece, called “Enormously Valuable.” I’m putting it on my website under “Short Stories” on the main menu in case you want to read it. I promise you it’s a true story…only the names have been changed to protect the guilty (including my own)…